You never know what's going to be behind the bathroom door in Japan. Sometimes, it's hard enough to find the door.

Editor's Note: We received this e-mail by way of Dan Holohan. Sarah Peel is an assistant English teacher at Onomichi Commercial High School in Japan, and had only spent five weeks in Japan when she sent this e-mail to her family. Her father is a hydronic contractor in Canada.

I have come to the conclusion that you can tell a lot about a country by its plumbing. Japan is probably the best example of this I have found so far. This morning at least, the toilets here seem to perfectly symbolize the little I understand about this country. So here, for those of you considering a visit to this wacky land or who are constantly asking me for points of comparison to home, is a tour of the wonderful world of Japanese bodily fluids disposal!

The Japanese toilet is a crazy mix of Western and not-so Western equipment, special accessories found nowhere else on the face of the planet, plus a distinct lack of publicly-provided toilet paper.

Toilet Manners: Schools and homes often have special toilet slippers outside, the principle being you change out of your indoor slippers (which you put on at the entrance of the house), put on the toilet slippers and, voila, you are ready to have a hygienic trip to the loo. No dragging those unsightly and unclean germs from the toilet around your house. And don't you dare bring outside contamination in. Get those slippers on. Its specialization at its finest!

So you're in your slippers and poised for adventure. Prepare yourself, because you never know what you are going to find behind door No. 1. In fact it's good to learn the "kanji" for men and women because the signs are not the typical symbols you're used to, and it may take some time to figure out where you are supposed to be headed in those slippers if you are in a public place.

Pink signs do mean women, and blue, black or whatever else including pink may indicate men. More often, there is a silhouette of people with one wearing a necklace and the other wearing a tie. Or one is wearing a man's hat and the other a woman's. In Japanese, we say "gambatte," meaning good luck/courage. Of course, you could always lurk around outside until someone comes out, but this can be a tedious experience.

Once inside, the typical Japanese toilet is not really a toilet as you would envision one. There is no seat, it has no lid, there isn't a water reservoir and no contact with porcelain is ever made unless you are double-jointed and do something extremely unorthodox. The Japanese toilet is a bit like a urinal placed flat on the ground over which you squat and do whatever you have to do. There is generally running water, and that's about it.

If you want toilet paper, it's your responsibility. You almost always have some paper, however, as many companies give away tissues as presents, complete with package slogans for everything from travel companies to call girls. This brilliant strategy fills the toilet paper void, and a whole new industry has been created to make give-away tissues, thanks to this seemingly grand oversight.

The cubicles are small, extremely tall. I don't know very many people who are 8 ft. tall anywhere, especially when they are squatting.

Japanese people often look at you funny or comment to a friend if you come out of a Japanese-style toilet, as if to say that they cannot believe you can manage to use one when you didn't grow up with it. They do the same thing when I use chopsticks, so I am pretty much immune to these things. There are days, however, when I wish I could speak enough Japanese to ask where they went to the bathroom last time they were overseas. Thankfully, no tongue-biting is needed since my Japanese is definitely not up to sarcasm as of yet!

Like Home, With A Twist

Japan's Western-style toilets are much like anything back home, but then modified to suit Japanese tastes and impressions of what we foreign folks like. And you would not believe what we like either! Apparently I really need a bidet. And a heated seat must be there, too, since my poor butt gets cold on the porcelain. (I don't even want to think what could grow on a heated seat.) And Westerners evidently forget their toilet paper a lot so an air dryer function is often provided to send a gentle little breeze across your damp bottom (thanks to the bidet).

My favorite Japanese innovation for Western toilets is "stream music," the ultimate in relaxation. Toilet seats have been known to fly up and down by themselves when I open and close the stall door. The place is usually rife with motion detectors that make things flush, run, play, dry and otherwise assist you. Sometimes the little Japanese woman's voice that announces things to you blathers on as you come into the bathroom.

Meanwhile, your boring, everyday Western water closet, like the one in my apartment, looks somewhat like what you are familiar with. It has a curvy water reservoir that is exceptionally large by Canadian standards, and the water fills from a spout on top through a hole in the reservoir lid. Brilliant since the toilet itself is the only thing in its little room (mine is 3 ft. by maybe 4 ft. max), and this allows you to wash your hands without walking 8 ft. across the room to the kitchen. And Western toilets have catchy names like "Single Fresh" or "Gladly" or, as mine is called at home, "Ina."

Well there it is, the whole crazy, funny, always interesting and rarely predictable world of Japanese toilets. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to use the ladies room.